Space & Innovation

A Phone That Can See Its Surroundings

A simple device lets phones tell where they are, and pick up gestures from afar. Continue reading →

One of the limitations of smart phones is that they don't know what's around them - the camera can only see front to back. So if you forget to set the ringer on vibrate and go into a meeting it can go off and irritate everyone. Phones can be used while driving, and can't tell if you're using a stylus or a finger on the touch screen, nor can they pick up gestures from across the room.

Anything You Can Do Robots Can Do Better: Photos

That's now changed. Xing-Dong Yang, a graduate student in the Department of Computing Science at the University of Alberta has made his phone (an HTC as it happens) able to see its surroundings and learn what it sees. He calls the device Surround-See.

"We can train the phone," Yang told DNews. "It takes a number of pictures of the environment, as samples." At that point its machine-learning algorithm can help the phone compare the pictures in the library to what it sees around it. The algorithm itself is off-the-shelf, but nobody combined it with a smart phone and a panoramic lens before.

Now Yang's phone can see when he makes gestures across the room, so he can turn it on or off or answer it. The phone even warns him when he is in a car, and asks him if he wants to take it with him when he leaves the room. He has a video showing some of the phone's capabilities here.

40 Years of the Cell Phone: Photos

"Humans are really smart about their environments, because we can see them," Yang said. "This makes the phones smarter."

Yang is thinking of commercializing it, though he hasn't filed for patents yet.

Photo: Courtesy Xing-Dong Yang

"Joel, this is Marty Cooper, I'd like you to know that I'm calling you from a cellular phone." Exactly 40 years ago, on April 3, 1973, Motorola engineer Martin Cooper placed this call -- the first ever on a cell phone -- to Joel Engel, his rival at AT&T’s Bell Labs.

Cooper, now 85, made history in downtown Manhattan using the bulky prototype he had developed.

Cooper's prototype arrived on the market a decade later at the staggering price of $3,995. Designed by Rudy Krolopp, it was known as the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, or simply "the brick.” Featuring 20 large buttons and a long rubber antenna, it measured about 11 inches high, weighed almost 2 pounds, provided one hour of battery life and could store 30 phone numbers.

Released in 1984, Nokia’s Mobira Talkman was advertised as one of the first transportable phones. It was sold for use both in and out of a car -- if you could lift it.

Nokia's concept evolved in 1987 with the handheld mobile Mobira Cityman 900. Weighing 28 ounces, it was one of the lightest phones at that time and cost 24,000 Finnish marks ($5,178).

Ahead of its time, the Motorola MicroTAC was the smallest available phone when it was released in 1989. Featuring the flip-phone form later adopted by the fashionable StarTAC, the first clamshell cellular phone, the MicroTAC was 9 inches long when open and weighed only 12.3 ounces.

Launched in 1992 -- also when the first text message arrived -- the Nokia 101 was the first commercially available GSM mobile phone.

Although it lacked the famous Nokia ringtone, introduced in 1994, it featured a monochrome display and memory for 99 phone numbers. Its design anticipated the successful "candy bar” phones.

Released in 1993 as a joint creation of IBM and BellSouth, this was the first smartphone. A fax machine, a PDA, a pager and a mobile phone, the IBM Simon featured no physical keys, but used a touchscreen and optional stylus. Amazingly, it included applications such as games, email, a notepad, calculator, world clock, address book and a calendar. It only sold in the United States, for $899.

Launched in 1999, this was the first mobile phone with integrated GPS.

Featuring a large grayscale LCD screen, it offered a 12-channel GPS navigator and maps to trace position. It also sent coordinates via text messages to a list of emergency numbers and featured a "friend find” service to track other Benefon Esc users.

Launched in 2000, the Samsung SPH-M100 Uproar holds its place in history as the first mobile phone capable of storing and playing MP3 files.

Cell phone photography arrived in 2000, with Samsung's SCH-V200, a VGA-camera-equipped phone. Released in South Korea, it featured a digital camera with a 180-degree rotating lens and a maximum resolution of 352 x 288 -- a far cry from the 41-megapixel camera phone that Nokia will release in European markets in May.

Motorola brought contemporary design to mobile phones with the Razr V3 in 2004. Thin, trendy and stylish, it featured a VGA camera, quad-band compatibility and Bluetooth support.

The phone became an icon. According to Motorola, more than 110 million units sold worldwide.

The launch of Apple's iPhone in 2007 changed everything. With its unique design, easy-to-use operating system and a multitude of apps to download, the multi- touchscreen phone set the standard for all cell phones to come.

Once an accessory for the privileged, Martin Cooper's vision is now a staple of life. Today the world has nearly as many mobile phone subscriptions as inhabitants.

Indeed, 6 billion people, out of the world's estimated 7 billion, have access to mobile phones.